Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Farewell, For Now

My Grandpa Koebel died this morning.  It's a sad day but, unfortunately, not unexpected – the culmination of a week of rapid decline.  I wrote the note below last Sunday, a day after visiting the hospital and just before he was transferred to Hospice care.

The world feels a little darker today.  But I take joy in knowing that the influences Grandpa had on my life and the fond memories he helped create will eventually wash away my tears and bring a little light into my most difficult days. 

Yesterday, I said good-bye to my grandfather for the last time.  It’s only a matter of days, maybe hours, before the tumors and lesions that have overtaken his body, brain and lucidity finally overpower his ability to survive.

As we often do when the death of a loved one is imminent, we turn to our shared and individual memories.  It’s a way to celebrate a life well-lived, and also to ease our own pain and sadness.  For me, it always comes back to one story from my youth.  It’s actually pretty boring, but I know why it has always stuck.  To me, it’s a very simple demonstration of who Grandpa is and how I will always remember him…

In my early teen years, I earned a little spending money mowing the lawn of Mrs. Smith, the sweet old lady who lived directly across the street from Grandma and Grandpa.  It was a pretty sweet gig for an adolescent – $10 and I sometimes earned a delicious sandwich and lemonade for my efforts!

One year, it was my birthday (in June) and I had just crawled out of bed.  It was about 7:30 a.m.  I was curled up on the couch, watching television and enjoying a bowl of sugary cereal, looking forward to a leisure-filled day involving nothing more than my butt glued to a couch or lawn chair.

Just as I was getting comfortable, I heard the back door swing open and, before I could react, Grandpa came bounding into the den, full of early morning energy.

Happy birthday, Grandson,” he hollered.  “Now let’s get moving.  Mrs. Smith’s lawn isn’t going to mow itself!”

And, with that, I was on my way to Clinton Street, my leisure-filled birthday over before it even began.

As I mentioned, in the grand scheme of things, it’s a throwaway story, something most people would forget about in a week.  But, I know why it clings to my mind.  It showed me the kind of person my grandfather has always been.

He’s selfless. You see, that day, birthday or not, was never about me.  I could sit around doing a whole bunch of nothing anytime.  No, it was about his neighbor, someone who had a need she couldn’t fulfill on her own.  What I may not have realized then, but can appreciate now, is that Grandpa was instilling in me his values of always putting the needs of others ahead of your own.  It’s how he lived his whole life.

He served his country.  Grandpa is a charter member of the Greatest Generation.  He sailed the South Pacific on the U.S.S. Enterprise at the tail end of World War II, doing his own small part to protect the world from tyranny and oppression.

He committed himself to his community.  Grandpa chose a career as a firefighter, putting his own health and safety at risk to protect the lives and property of his fellow Fremonters.  Even as heart troubles began to plague him in late middle age, he carried on, battling blazes until age finally caught up, easing him into retirement.

He served local youth.  For years, Grandpa drove the Bookmobile.  For those outside my generation or living outside Sandusky County, the Bookmobile was a giant blue bus retrofitted as a traveling book repository, offering Birchard Public Library’s finest literature to the school-age kids around the county who might not be able to access it otherwise.  I was always proud to tell my classmates that the bald guy with the mustache sitting in the driver’s seat was my granddad.

I could go on and.  Those are just a few of the big things, and Grandpa’s attention for others extended far beyond his work.  Where did the kids typically stay when Mom and Dad went on a grown-ups' vacation?  Clinton Street.  Who was the first call when you needed a ride?  Grandpa.  Who was front and center at almost every ballgame – sometimes cheering, oftentimes pacing nervously if one of the grandkids was in the game?  You guessed it.

Even as death became a certainty late last week, he made sure loved ones from Fremont and Toledo and Akron and Pittsburgh and Dayton could all converge on his hospital room for one more visit before he left us.  He’s stubbornly hung on well beyond the doctors’ expectations, giving us all a chance to say hello (and good-bye) one final time.  I know he’s not sticking around for himself – he’s never been real comfortable as the center of attention.  But he had to make sure we would have some comfort and peace of mind at the end.

So, have a safe trip to the other side Grandpa Koebel.  You inspired me to do good unto others before myself.  I know we’ll one day meet again and, until we do, I’ll hold onto the memories to remind myself that you may be gone, but you’ll never be far away.

- Vincent G. Koebel Obituary
- Tribute Video

Monday, May 23, 2011

There’s Something About Coffee

One of my fondest memories from childhood is waking up early on a weekend morning to the smell of a freshly brewed pot of coffee.  It was (and is) an intoxicating aroma – warm and comforting.  I’ve always smiled at the images of my dad, morning stubble and all, hunched over the morning paper with a steaming mug of Columbian goodness close by his side.

All that almost changed one fateful day when I was five or six and decided to sneak a sip.

It was terrible.  Like dirty, gritty, caffeinated rainwater.  I couldn’t believe anyone would willingly ingest such a toxic substance.  And yet, here was my old man, happily sucking it down like a holy elixir, savoring every drop.  Why would he willingly dump this sludge down his gullet when a delicious mug of hot cocoa was no more than a boiling teakettle away?

My disgust with coffee continued well into adulthood.  Oh sure, I’d have an occasional cup in college if I needed a quick boost after a late night out on the town.  But I’d load it up with so much cream and sugar that it more closely resembled a crunchy bowl of whole milk than anything harvested by Juan Valdez.  Raw, black coffee resided squarely at the bottom of my “need to drink” list.

So why, with those recollections still fresh in my mind, did I rush to the coffeepot this morning, fill my travel mug to the rim and then stare longingly into its empty void, craving more, after swallowing the 20th and final ounce?  Why has this been my daily routine for the past 10+ years?  At what point did my abhorrence become allegiance?

I think it happens to all of us.  Something we detested in our youth becomes a necessary, and even enjoyable, staple in our adult lives.  For many of my peers, it started with coffee.  I haven’t known many six-year-olds who crave it.  Yet, in the office, we crowd around a brewing pot like cattle, waiting for our morning (and sometimes afternoon) dose.  At Starbucks and Einstein Brothers, the lines wind their way out the doors every Saturday and Sunday, with people – including me – willingly paying upwards of $4.00 for their trouble!

The mysterious transformation has always puzzled me.  Is the adult need for coffee psychological?  Physical?  Emotional?  I mean, it basically tastes the same today as it did when we were kids.  So why do so many of us love it now when we loathed it 20 or more years ago?  I wonder about this frequently as I sleepily load up another filter and flip the switch to “brew.”

I guess, in the end, it’s best not to overthink it.  Enlightened or not, I’ll still wake up tomorrow morning, rub my eyes, fill my mug, slurp it down, and restart the whole cycle again the next day.

And I still usually add a little cream and (a lot of) sugar.  I guess I’ve still got some growing up to do.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Down with Elmo!

My daughter will hit the 15-month mark next weekend.  At this age, the transition from generic picture books and big buttoned contraptions to videos and sing-along toys is happening quickly.  Many of the newest additions to our overflowing living room carry the vaunted Sesame Workshop label.  This inundation of tchotchkes from the Street has led me to a very dark realization.

I hate Elmo.

Let’s put aside that he talks like a Jersey Shore cast member with a mouthful of helium (listen closely.  I think you’ll agree), only refers to himself in the third person (who does he think he is, the Rock?) and giggles at the end of nearly every sentence like a high-pitched chain smoker.  I can live with all that.  After all, most things designed for little kids are extremely annoying to grown-ups (I’d also like to throw my kid’s singing dinosaur scooter into a tar pit, but I won’t, because I know she loves it).

I hate Elmo because he represents the transition of Sesame Street from the cream of the educational programming crop into a marketing machine that prioritizes selling products over teaching children.  We have a lot of Elmo stuff in our house and much of it serves little purpose beyond entertainment.  Even the learning materials seem like a blatant attempt to cram in as many characters as possible to appeal to the largest possible consumer base.

I grew up in a generation that learned numbers, letters, colors and shapes from the Count, Oscar and the rest of the gang, so I’m sure this rant is partly due to my nostalgia and resistance to change.  I’m also not so na├»ve as to think merchandising hasn’t always been a priority at Sesame.  My first favorite book, “The Great Pigeon Race,” was a Sesame Street story that taught me nothing except that pigeons apparently wear leather helmets and goggles.  Nevertheless, it still seemed that the toys and games always took a back seat to Sesame Workshop’s genuine desire to help kids learn.

Then Elmo came along and completely stole the show.  And he’s brought almost nothing to the table.  He was created for one reason – commercialization.  What’s he most famous for?  Probably two things – the “Tickle Me Elmo” doll and “Elmo’s Song.”  Neither of these does anything to help build a child’s cognitive abilities.  Yet, parents have fought in the aisles over that insufferable doll and that mind-numbing song just won’t go away.

That said, I know plenty of teaching still takes place on the Sesame Street program (even Elmo’s World), and I hope my kid watches it when she’s a little older.  But, looking at the bigger picture, the opportunities to supplement the show’s educational lessons with related merchandise are getting watered down with all the other mindless junk being dumped into the marketplace.  These days, Sesame Workshop is as much a toy company as it is a beacon of learning.

And it all starts with that squeaky red furball with the big orange nose.

I have a blog. Neato, eh?

About once a week, I wake up in the middle of the night and can’t fall back to sleep.  My mind starts wandering to all sorts of topics and, next thing I know, I’m standing in the shower trying to remember if have clean underwear for the day.

During these late-night mind-benders, I never think about anything profound like solving poverty or curing cancer.  It’s usually stuff like “How do they make string cheese?” or “I wonder what King Kong Bundy’s up to these days.”

Lately, I’ve started to think that, maybe if I start writing down some of these random musings, it will help cure my pseudo-insomnia.  So, I decided to start a blog.  What an original concept, right?

Most personal blogs are highly self-centered and pretentious.  This one will be no exception.  It will also be cynical.  And rambling.  And will often contain statements and assumptions that have no basis in fact.  But it will be therapeutic for me, and that’s really the main purpose.

So feel free to follow along if you’d like.  If you enjoy it, cool.  If not, meh.  I’m gonna keep writing either way.